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From Vol. 4, Issue 9, September 2022

Four keys to dealing with stress


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“...built-up stress is a lot like anger: once you let it get the better of you, it’s hard to regain control of yourself...”

Four keys to dealing with stress

How should a Stoic deal with stress? On this subject, I find Marcus Aurelius to be very helpful. In running the Roman Empire, he had a frantically busy daily schedule, and he frequently had to deal with people and events that he didn’t particularly enjoy. To combat the stresses of his demanding life, he constantly reminded himself to change his judgments, find a new perspective, and uncomplainingly fulfill his official duties. We can use these same principles today. Here are four of my favorite stress-relief tips from Marcus.

1. All turns on judgment

All turns on judgment, and that rests with you. So when you will, pluck out the judgment, and then, as though you passed the headland, the sea is calm, and all is still, and there is not a wave in the bay. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 12.22

This is probably my favourite, because of the beautiful mental image Marcus creates here. I envision myself on a stormy sea, surrounded by craggy cliffs and rocky waves, then rounding a cliff and reaching a peaceful, serene bay. The waves stop crashing; the noise dies down; even the gray mist evaporates into sunshine. I am now floating peacefully on calm, clear water, about to embark at the harbour.

This seems to me a perfect metaphor for dealing with a stressful situation. By creating the right judgments within ourselves, we go from stormy seas to smooth sailing. The wonderful thing is that the external circumstances don’t have to change; it is our internal climate that changes. When we remind ourselves to focus on what we can control (our judgments), the storm tapers off and is replaced by calm.

2. Return to yourself

When the force of circumstances causes you, in some sense, to lose your equilibrium, return to yourself with all speed, and never lose the rhythm for any longer than you must. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.11

If you do feel yourself getting stressed out, try to zoom out and think about what you are doing. If you manage to get outside yourself a bit, you might be able to re-frame the situation and get back in the right frame of mind. Return to yourself with all speed, and start over, this time keeping your Stoic principles in mind.

3. Be a good person

What is your profession? To be a good person. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 11.5

This is excellent advice for keeping things in perspective. Whatever you are doing right now that is causing such stress – running out the door to work, dealing with an angry colleague – it is not your first priority. Your first priority is always to be a good person. Everything else is secondary. Once you realize this, it’s much easier to be at peace with yourself as you go about your daily business. Even if you’re running late for work, or even if your colleague reacts badly, you are still doing your own job (being a good person) properly.

4. Know it is in your power

the soundest thing that can be done or said? For whatever it may be, it is in your power to do or say it, and you should not try to excuse yourself by saying that you are being prevented. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 10.33

No excuses! Maybe the material (i.e., external circumstances) you are working with isn’t great, but you can still make the best of what you have. Maybe your angry colleague is being completely unreasonable, but you can still play your own role well. Maybe you have more on your to-do list than you can possibly get done, but you can still make a good-faith effort to approach it calmly and energetically. No one can stop you from doing your best and holding the proper judgment of the situation.

Approach with a right frame of mind

In my experience, built-up stress is a lot like anger: once you let it get the better of you, it’s hard to regain control of yourself. It’s much better to prevent it from accumulating in the first place. So if things pop during the day that stress you out, bring to mind these sage reminders from Marcus Aurelius. (And just remember, whatever you’re doing, it’s probably not as stressful as running the Roman Empire!) If you approach your daily activities with the right frame of mind, you will be much better at shaking off the unavoidable stresses of life.

Brittany Polat, author of Tranquility Parenting: A Guide to Staying Calm, Mindful, and Engaged, holds a Ph.D. in applied linguistics but currently researches and writes about Stoic psychology and philosophy. Brittany's latest project is Living in Agreement, where she applies her lifelong interest in human nature to the discourse and practice of inner excellence.